Mary Antin, a little Jewish Girl in the Russian Pale, 1890

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Mary Antin, A Little Jewish Girl in the Russian Pale, 1890

[Tappan Introduction] "THE PALE " is a strip of land stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, running chiefly through the Polish provinces. Save by special privilege, no Jew is allowed to make his home elsewhere than within this Pale.

THE Gentiles used to wonder at us because we cared so much about religious things about food and Sabbath and teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy, as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things. There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people, like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors. They were always respectful and openly admired some of our ways. But most of the Gentiles were ignorant. There was one thing, however, the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take any kind of bribe, at any time. They expected it. Peace cost so much a year, in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their children maltreating your children, they might complain against you to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called unless the judge had reason to befriend you.

The cheapest way to live in Polotzk was to pay as you went along. Even a little girl understood that. In your father's parlor hung a large colored portrait of Alexander III. The czar was a cruel tyrant---oh, it was whispered when doors were locked and shutters tightly barred, at night---he was a Titus, a Haman, a sworn foe of all Jews---and yet his portrait was seen in a place of honor in your father's house. You knew why. It looked well when police or government officers came on business.

The czar was always sending us commands,---you shall not do this and you shall not do that,---till there was very little left that we might do, except pay tribute and die. One positive command he gave us: You shall love and honor your emperor. In every congregation a prayer must be said for the czar's health, or the chief of police would close the synagogue. On a royal birthday every house must fly a flag, or the owner would be dragged to a police station and be fined twenty-five rubles. A decrepit old woman, who lived all alone in a tumble-down shanty, supported by the charity of the neighborhood, crossed her paralyzed hands one day when flags were ordered up, and waited for her doom, because she had no flag. The vigilant policeman kicked the door open with his great boot, took the last pillow from the bed, sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof.

The czar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There was a poor locksmith who owed the czar three hundred rubles, because his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his time in the army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the whole family was liable. Now the locksmith never could have so much money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached his household goods, everything he had, including his bride's trousseau; and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's time the police came again, looking for the balance of the czar's dues. They put their seal on everything they found....

Many bitter sayings came to your ears if you were a little girl in Polotzk. "It is a false world," you heard, and you knew it was so, looking at the czar's portrait, and at the flags. "Never tell a police officer the truth," was another saying, and you knew it was good advice. That fine of three hundred rubles was a sentence of life-long slavery for the poor locksmith, unless he could free himself by some trick. As fast as he could collect a few rags and sticks, the police would be after them.

Business really did not pay, when the price of goods was so swollen by taxes that the people could not buy. The only way to make business pay was to cheat---cheat the government of part of the duties. Playing tricks on the czar was dangerous, with so many spies watching his interests. People who sold cigarettes without the government seal got more gray hairs than banknotes out of their business. The constant risk, the worry, the dread of a police raid in the night, and the ruinous fines, in case of detection, left very little margin of profit or comfort to the dealer in contraband goods. "But what can one do? " the people said, with that shrug of the shoulders that expresses the helplessness of the Pale. "What can one do? One must live."

It was not so easy to live, with such bitter competition as the congestion of population made inevitable. There were ten times as many stores as there should have been, ten times as many tailors, cobblers, barbers, tinsmiths. A Gentile, if he failed in Polotzk, could go elsewhere, where there was less competition. A Jew could make the circle of the Pale only to find the same conditions as at home. Outside the Pale he could only go to certain designated localities, on payment of prohibitive fees, which were augmented by a constant stream of bribes; and even then he lived at the mercy of the local chief of police.

Artisans had the right to reside outside the Pale on fulfillment of certain conditions which gave no real security. Merchants could buy the right of residence outside the Pale, permanent or temporary, on conditions which might at any time be changed. I used to picture an uncle of mine on his Russian travels, hurrying, hurrying, to finish his business in the limited time; while the policeman marched behind him, ticking off the days and counting up the hours. That was a foolish fancy, but some of the things that were done in Russia really were very funny.

Perhaps I should not have had so many foolish fancies if I had not been so idle. If they had let me go to school---but of course they didn't. There was one public school for boys, and one for girls, but Jewish children were admitted in limited numbers---only ten to a hundred; and even the lucky ones had their troubles. First, you had to have a tutor at home, who prepared you and talked all the time about the examination you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for the Jewish candidates, of course: a nine-year-old Jewish child had to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected to answer. But that did not matter so much; you had been prepared for the thirteen-year-old test. You found the questions quite easy. You wrote your answers triumphantly---and you received a low rating, and there was no appeal.

I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store munching an apple that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their troubles, as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults from everybody. They were rejected at the universities, where they were admitted in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school: especially rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without disguise. No, the czar did not want us in the schools.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 243-247

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